It was easy on Friday night to watch the Timbers get crushed in Salt Lake and conclude that the sky may be falling on a 2013 campaign that once harbored so much promise. Indeed, the Timbers haven’t put in a performance that flat, that disorganized, and that utterly inferior since August of 2012.
But consider that Real Salt Lake are the unquestioned best team in MLS right now. And further consider that the Timbers were playing without a slew of first choice players, including Captain Will Johnson, utility man and first mate Jack Jewsbury, most of their center backs, and Frederic Piquionne – a player who was valuable not just for his attacking prowess, but also his set piece defending. And finally consider that the Timbers lost Jewsbury’s utility understudy, Ben Zemanski, to a flukey-for-him red card just before halftime.
Banged up. On the road. A man down. Against the best team in MLS. In the grand scheme, 4-2 isn’t that surprising.
And consider even further that in the disastrous opening fifteen minutes the Timbers were employing a defensive strategy foreign to them outside the final moments of a match in which the team needs a goal and is throwing caution to the proverbial wind. Now, the failed 3-4-3 experiment Porter ran on Friday, at least with the team he put on the field, is unlikely to recur. Caleb Porter is a smart guy. What you, I, and the rest of the viewing public saw from the Timbers defense to open the game on Friday is also utterly obvious to Porter. Don’t expect to see that again soon.
So, while Friday felt awful in the moment, a number of one-off conditions in that game substantially limit its contagion.
The next cause for concern extends beyond the struggles in Sandy and into the Timbers’ general form over the last several games. But taking a step back and examining the last four reveals that – while not ideal – the Timbers four points in four games is eminently understandable.
The Timbers beat FC Dallas in a game in which both teams played pretty well. Portland drew RSL at home in a strange outing marred by a referee who wanted to compete with the teams on the field for the right to determine the outcome of the match. Next, the Timbers lost a close game to a hot Seattle team despite being on the road and facing an absurd selection crisis in the most important position on the field. Finally, as discussed above, the Timbers fell to Salt Lake under less-than-ideal conditions.
While Portland probably feels like they left points on the table at home against RSL, it’s hard to call four points through those four games an unacceptable result. Imperfect? You bet. Disastrous? No way.
Even after all that, the Timbers still sit tied for fourth, with three winnable games on the horizon against Toronto FC, at Chivas USA, and home again to Colorado. If Portland can win all three of those – a possibility that is certainly realistic, if perhaps not necessarily probable – it’s hard to see the Timbers any lower than third in the West with a growing gap between them and the red line.
Thereafter, the Timbers get to face each of the other three prime candidates for the coveted top-three conference spots at home in the season’s final five weeks, giving the club the opportunity to control its own destiny from the friendly confines of Jeld-Wen Field.
In that way, the Timbers’ remaining eight games are close to perfectly set up. Winnable matches on the road and Western Conference rivals at home, where Portland still hasn’t lost since March 9th.
So, while Portland would prefer to be sitting more comfortably in the table at the moment, their present position and finishing stretch of games sets them up nicely to bring playoff soccer back to Portland.
Yes, what happened in Salt Lake was frustrating, but in no way is it a sign of an imminent apocalypse.
Onward, Rose City!